Leaders in Law: Ambassador Robert Kimmitt

Leaders in Law: Ambassador Robert Kimmitt

Podcast In the Public Interest

Episode Guest

Senior International Counsel Ambassador Robert Kimmitt joins In the Public Interest host Felicia Ellsworth to talk about his storied career in public service. Through his service as the first General Counsel of the National Security Council, the first American Ambassador to a united Germany in over 50 years, General Counsel and Deputy Secretary of the Department of the Treasury, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, and more, Ambassador Kimmitt has played a leading role in some of the most high-profile international events in recent history, and he shares that perspective with listeners.

Ellsworth and Kimmitt also discuss his private practice at WilmerHale, including how he and the firm have become go-to resources for journalists and others who have been taken hostage in difficult countries around the world. He shares the role he played in bringing home The Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, among others.

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Episode Transcript

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  • Transcript


    Felicia Ellsworth: Welcome to In the Public Interest, a podcast from WilmerHale. I’m your host, Felicia Ellsworth. I’m a partner at WilmerHale, an international law firm that works at the intersection of government, technology and business. In today’s episode, I have the pleasure of interviewing Senior International Counsel at WilmerHale and legend in global affairs, Ambassador Robert Kimmitt. It’s almost impossible to explain Ambassador Kimmitt’s career without recognizing his many firsts in the public and private spheres. Ambassador Kimmitt graduated first in his Ranger School class. He was the first in his West Point class to command paratroopers in combat. He served as the first General Counsel of the National Security Council, and was appointed the first American Ambassador to a united Germany in over 50 years. Ambassador Kimmitt also served as the General Counsel and Deputy Secretary of the Department of the Treasury and Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs. It’s no surprise that he possesses numerous awards in recognition of his merit and public service, including a Purple Heart, three Bronze Stars, the Air Medal, the German Order of Merit, the Presidential Citizens Medal, and many, many others. We invited Ambassador Kimmitt on the podcast to discuss highlights of his career in public service, as well as some of the interesting work he’s doing at the firm. While all of our In the Public Interest episodes provide insight into unique, important ways to practice law, this episode especially showcases the depth of public service experience our WilmerHale attorneys possess. Ambassador Kimmitt, it’s great to see you. Thank you so much for being here.

    Ambassador Robert Kimmitt: Felicia, thank you very much. I did hear you use the term legend. I think that’s the first time it’s been applied to me. I’m just going to assume that that’s a compliment and we’ll proceed on that basis.

    Felicia Ellsworth: Maybe it’s the first time it’s been applied to you in your earshot, but I’m sure it’s not the first time that you’ve been called that.

    Ambassador Robert Kimmitt: All right, we’ve got a place for you in the diplomatic corps.

    Felicia Ellsworth:So, when developing this episode, it was actually really hard for us to decide where to start because we could fill three episodes touching on just a decade of your storied career. But I thought it would make some sense to start at the beginning because I understand you had a pretty unique upbringing, spent between the United States and Germany. Could you tell me a little bit about your early years and where your inspiration in pursuing a career in the public interest really came from?

    Ambassador Robert Kimmitt: Sure. Thanks very much. The inspiration for public service came from our parents. My six siblings and I have all served either in the military, the civil service, or both. My father was in 78th Division during World War II, fought the Battle of the Bulge. His division crossed the Rhine River on the Remagen Bridge and was the first division to occupy Berlin. My mother was in the American Red Cross during the war. They were actually in military uniform and under military command at the time. She ended up in Berlin. They met in ’46, married in ’47. I was born exactly nine months later in the United States, so like President Kennedy, I say “Ich bin ein Berliner” but unlike the President, I was actually made in Germany. I later served in Germany myself when I was in the military, with Germany being ground zero of the Cold War confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States.

    Felicia Ellsworth: Wow, what a fascinating backdrop. And it certainly explains a lot of your commitment to public service. Let’s skip ahead to one of your first prominent positions, which was serving as Executive Secretary and the first General Counsel of the National Security Council at the White House. You’ve served under three presidents, handled events such as the Iran hostage crisis, the American downing of Libyan aircraft following an attack over international waters, the Soviet shootdown of a Korean airliner and the liberation in Granada. What were some of your most memorable moments from your time at the NSC?

    Ambassador Robert Kimmitt: Sure, my career has really been a mix of hard work and serendipity, and my time at the NSC was much more the latter than the former in that I wrote a law review note my second year at Georgetown Law School on a new law that had been passed requiring congressional review of arms sales. Previously, the president could make an arms sale unilaterally. This law, the Nelson-Bingham Amendment to the Arms Export Control Act, required congressional review of arms sales. That note attracted some attention. I was asked to come down to the National Security Council the summer of ’76 between my second and final year at Georgetown Law School. It was going to be a summer internship. It ended up being 100 months of service at the NSC—as you said, and the three Presidents, five national security advisors—I love being there both because as you said, it was exciting times in American national security policy, but also it was small. Everybody had multiple responsibilities. Mine were legal, legislative and arms sales during virtually the entire time that I was there. And then in those last 2 1/2 years when I was Executive Secretary, that’s effectively like the Chief Operating Officer of the National Security Council. Like many things at the NSC, it was a mix of the magnificent and the mundane. One day I was in the Oval Office briefing the president on a new executive order on the use of U.S. intelligence services, and then I went back and basically had to do my own copying for some birthday greetings we were sending to some ruler in the Middle East. Same thing on the legal side. I think that the lesson that I took from that is first of all, if someone’s gonna spend time in government, having some opportunity at an early point in your career to spend time at the White House, you really get a good sense of how government works and sometimes doesn’t work. And I was fortunate enough to see that quite early in my career so that when I went to the departments and agencies, I understood what the end game was going to be of any matter which I was involved.

    Felicia Ellsworth: Wow, it sounds absolutely fascinating. Let’s go back to Germany. I want to fast forward a few years to 1991, when you were appointed the first American Ambassador to a united Germany following the fall of the Berlin Wall. Tell us a little bit about what that was like. I can only imagine.

    Ambassador Robert Kimmitt: It was a great honor. I will just say that by far it was my favorite government job. Number one, having the honor of representing your country in another country is, for someone who is a public servant at heart, I think the highest honor you could have. Secondly, I was the first Ambassador appointed to a united Germany in over 60 years. I had worked on the 2 + 4 process leading to German unification and some months later I’m in Germany helping to implement this new relationship with Germany, and it was a new relationship. You know, it’s interesting. We’ll use the term national security, striking that national security isn’t anywhere defined in the statute books, and that makes sense. Why? Because it’s a very dynamic concept. One thing during the Cold War, another thing during the post-Cold War period, post-9/11, post-financial crisis and now in this extraordinarily complex world that we’re in with major wars, both in the Middle East and in Europe. So I’ve always thought of national security and equational terms—maybe it’s my engineering background at West Point. It’s just foreign policy plus defense policy, plus international economic policy all divided by or rested on a strong intelligence base. And during the Cold War period, our relationship with Germany, not surprising, was predominantly political, military. But in the post-Cold War period, while those issues remained important, the real growth areas were in commerce and culture, and I spent, I would say, equivalent amount of my times doing political, military and then economic, financial, cultural work to try to broaden the relationship for this new era in what I consider our most important bilateral relationship in Europe. I would get up in the morning, go for a run, come back, have breakfast with the children. They’d go off to school. I’d go fly someplace in the country to meet the local political officials but then I also wanted to go to the headquarters of German companies operating in the US, or US companies operating in Germany, and then I’d usually close the day by speaking at an educational institution, either in high school or a university. I would say that the one other thing that I did was there wasn’t a week during my time in Germany that I didn’t spend at least one day in former East Germany. As I was the first Ambassador who could roam freely in those five former German states, even the former US Ambassador to East Germany was restricted in ways I was not, so they really hadn’t seen an American Ambassador. At the end of the day, it was really important to carry that message to part of Germany that had had virtually no contact with America. And indeed, had heard things about America and NATO that were just flatly wrong. Fortunately, one of the East German politicians I got to know well was Angela Merkel. I’d love to tell you that I saw in her a future chancellor when I first met her. I didn’t. But I paid attention to her in her early political career that developed into a very nice professional as well as political and personal relationship. And that came about, again, with the focus that we tried to put on former East Germany.

    Felicia Ellsworth: Wow, what a fascinating experience and great to hear that you knew Chancellor Merkel long before the rest of us knew of her. Let’s shift a little bit into your foray into private practice after your ambassadorship. You joined this firm, or one of its predecessors, I should say, as a partner. Can you talk a little bit about how your private practice compared to and differed from what you had been doing in the public sphere leading up to that time?

    Ambassador Robert Kimmitt: Sure. I mean, ultimately in government you have one client or maybe two clients, president of the United States and the American people, and you do everything you can to advance the interest—in my case the national security interests of the United States. You’re in a law firm, you’re going to have many clients, many opportunities, many different matters to work on. In my case, my joining Wilmer Cutler Pickering in April of 1997 probably had its roots in meeting Lloyd Cutler in 1979 when he became counsel to President Carter. Lloyd and I worked especially closely together on a number of really complex matters. We stayed in touch and I finally took him up on his offer to join Wilmer Cutler Pickering, and what was quite important for me was that Wilmer at that time had offices in London, Brussels and was the first American firm to open an office in Berlin. So we had sort of a capital cities practice that I thought was particularly important for the kind of work that I would like to do, which is basically cross-border regulatory work and even back then, we did a lot of work on Sophia sanctions, export controls. again, my practice, it’s always cross-border in some dimension. I’d say it’s always at that intersection of business, finance and government meet. Fortunately, I’ve had an opportunity to work at each of those intersections and try to bring that integrated view to the advice that I give to clients.

    Felicia Ellsworth: Well, something that this firm does particularly well, to be sure. Now let’s talk about going back to serve yet another president after about a decade in private practice you returned back to public service as the Deputy Secretary of the Treasury under President George Bush. Can you talk a little bit about how you approached that role in the particularly tumultuous time in which you took it?

    Ambassador Robert Kimmitt: Sure. So I went back to Treasury in August of 2005, so early in the second Bush 43 term. I’ll say it straight out. Treasury is my favorite department. It’s got the broadest responsibilities and the narrowest bureaucracies, so that relationship of bureaucracy to substantive work is the best anywhere in government. There’s a single secretary, a single deputy, three under secretaries,10 assistant secretaries, never any fight over who has the lead. It’s just the department that puts its head down and gets work done. Fundamentally, I had the lead on the department’s international agenda. I was the principal treasury participant in Oval Office meetings, which you had Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday with the president. Almost all the National Security Council meetings in the situation room with the White House. And that could run the gamut from the wars that were going on at that time in Afghanistan and Iraq, our responsibility, which was to try to have the best economic financial management you could have in those conflict and post-conflict settings. We also had a particular emphasis on sanctions against nuclear proliferators, principally North Korea and Iran. I also basically effectively chaired the Committee on Foreign Investment in the US. Took a real lead on FDI, foreign direct investment, coming into the US, represented the US at meetings of the G7 and the G20, APEC, Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation, IMF and World Bank meetings. And then of course, starting in August of 2007, the global financial crisis took off, and the Secretary Paulson was basically 100% consumed by that. I helped him as much as I could, particularly on using groups like the G7, the G20 and others to support our response to the crisis. But really I ended up running almost everything else in the department during that year and a half that he was so focused on the crisis. So during that time I got more into domestic finance, more into some of our economic taxation and other matters, important initiatives that we were taking.

    Felicia Ellsworth: Well, luckily for us, you returned back to WilmerHale after that stint in the government. Tell us a little bit about what your practice has looked like here and some of the types of issues that you’ve been tackling. And I’m particularly interested in your description of the equation of national security and how you bring that to bear in representing clients today.

    Ambassador Robert Kimmitt: Sure. So now I’m back advising clients. In my practice, American companies succeed overseas. Overseas companies succeed in the United States. I’d call it generally a cross-border regulatory practice, but in 2009 when I came back, we had other talented people here. Ben Powell, having served as the General Counsel of the first three Directors of National Intelligence, Stephen Preston, who had served as of course, general counsel of the Navy, CIA, Defense. David Cohen had served in the Treasury Department. People were going back and forth, but we had the real nucleus for setting up the first integrated national security practice of any law firm. Usually it’s just trying to figure out how to advise clients on dealing with legal, regulatory and policy issues in a way that allows them to achieve the business goals that they have set out. And the best clients are the ones who bring us in early in that process. Very often you’ll have clients who will do, say a major cross-border deal, and then someone will say, OK, let’s go find some lawyers and PR people to help us sell this. Now, that’s not the way to do it. What you want to do is to have your advisors, whether it’s WilmerHale or anyone else, with you from the start, because we’ve got a team of people experienced enough that we can tell the business client roughly, within 10%, what their chance for success is in the regulatory world and within one month, how long it’s going to take. And then also what additional assets would do to speed things up or improve chances for success. I would also say we’ve been doing lately a lot of what we call compliance reviews for companies. These are basically looking at the companies’ compliance programs, including how they’re dealing with tough situations like China and other issues to try to identify those changes that can be made to their compliance programs or business approaches to better enable them to succeed on a cross-border basis and significantly reduce their legal, regulatory and reputational risk. The good clients I think have recognized that investing early on to try to anticipate issues, make adjustments is the better way to go. I think we’re really good at doing that.

    Felicia Ellsworth: So I know you’re working on many more fascinating matters than we could possibly cover, given the time that we have, but I’m wondering if you could share one or two of the matters that might be of interest to our listeners.

    Ambassador Robert Kimmitt: Well, I would say that probably one of the most unique features of our national security practice is that we’ve really become the go to firm when journalists and others are taken hostage in difficult countries around the world. In 2009, a Canadian Iranian journalist named Maziar Bahari, who was the Newsweek correspondent in Tehran, was arrested during the Green Revolution. Newsweek at that time was owned by The Washington Post. The Washington Post asked us what we could do to help get him out, and that was the time the US government wasn’t even talking to the Iranians. So basically, we came up with an approach, working with Newsweek and others that allowed Maziar, fortunately, to be released in about a 90- to-100-day period. Five years later, we got a call from The Washington Post when their correspondent, Jason Rezaian, along with his wife Yeganeh Salahi, were arrested in Tehran on charges of espionage. By that time, the US government was talking with the Iranians, so they were out in front. But we represented The Washington Post again. In that particular case, stayed very closely in touch with the family and although it took quite some period of time, a lot of my work at State, at the NSC, abroad and at home was very helpful. But there’s a lot of core legal work that needs to be done. I mean, one of the first things you have to do is you have to get licenses from the Treasury Department, advised by the State Department, to allow you to work with authorities in Iran and to get counsel in Iran and so forth, since they were subject to sanctions, you have to make sure you have all your government regulatory approvals lined up. Then, as I said, you help engage counsel for the hostage or hostages who have been taken. You’re the principal liaison with that counsel. And then we actually filed a petition with what’s called the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, basically alleging that Jason was being held illegally and asking that he be immediately released and we won a resounding victory in that working group. I will tell you even when I was Under Secretary of State, I wasn’t aware of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. Fortunately, Dave Bowker and other of our top international lawyers were. Jason was out, I think 32 days after we got that resounding victory. It wasn’t the sole reason, but I think it was an important contributor. And then fast forward, we used that filing as the basis for a case that we filed on behalf of the Rezaian family in the District Court in Washington, DC, basically suing the Iranians for damages and reparations from the time that Jason spent in jail and his family both spent time trying to get him out, went through the suffering that they did. We did not expect the Iranians to respond in court, and they did not. We’re in front of Judge Leon, who basically said that gave him a particularly important responsibility to make sure that you didn’t just accept our pleadings and move on, so we actually had effectively a trial here in front of Judge Leon, one a very important victory for the client and now are at the toughest end of that and that is trying to recover on the judgment that was awarded. So it’s really sort of a full circle process. We also represented Princeton University in helping get one of their graduate students out of Iran. We represented on a pro bono basis the family of Trevor Reed, a marine who had been picked up in Moscow, who came out in ’22 I guess it was, and we’re now engaged by Dow Jones to help them on the very difficult case of Evan Gershkovich, who is, unfortunately in jail in Moscow.

    Felicia Ellsworth: Well, we’ll hope to be able to have you report in on some successful results for some of those ongoing cases, similar to the great result that you all got for the Rezaian family. Before we conclude, as we’ve discussed, our listeners, primarily our legal audience, and they span various areas and levels of practice, including some current and future law students. And given all that you’ve seen and experienced in this incredible career, I wonder if you have any advice that you’d give to those interested in pursuing a career in public service or in national security and how that intersects with, as you said, law and technology and everything else.

    Ambassador Robert Kimmitt: Glad to do it. I’ll talk to the broader audience first and maybe make some comments to people who might be either still in law school, considering law school, or just moving beyond law school. I would say generally, and this isn’t just for lawyers, I think most people focus on what’s next for them. And that’s very understandable, very human. But when I was traveling around the world, both in government and the private sector, on long flights, I’d always try to take out a tablet and just on a single page, write on the top: Bob Kimmet, The Next Chapters. And I tried to look 10 years into the future and I said if I could write the script, how would I like these next 10 years to play out? Some of it’s very personal, but in my case it was very clear: I wanted to hold the highest appointed position that I could attain in the national security community. And in those years that I wasn’t in government, I wanted to be doing things in the private sector that were interesting, that would contribute to my public service goal and obviously would help me provide for my family. And that might sound, you know, sort of squishy. But in fact, at various points in my career, it really helped me on making decisions when nice opportunities were presented my way. Secondly, I don’t know how many of our listeners play the game of squash. I played it at West Point. I was a very bad squash player, but in the back of a squash court, there’s basically a T that divides the service courts. And when you serve, you want to get to right at the intersection of the T because it’s tough for people to get balls past you, easier for you to make kill shots at the wall. Well, I’ve tried to tell people that I’m trying to live my life at that T intersection. I want to have broad areas of experience and interests and contribution. That’s breadth, but at the end of the day, I want my hallmark to be that people say I delivered in depth, whether it’s policy results in government, client results in the private sector. And so I found that generally people interview you for your breadth and they hire you for your depth. So what I would encourage people to do is get as many experiences as you can. Don’t be one of those people who’s an inch deep in 1,000 things but couldn’t find a bottom line with the Waze app. But by the same token, you’ve always got to be able to make clear that you can deliver to your organization’s bottom line. So that combination of breadth and depth with an eye to the future, I think is really important. For law students, obviously, do the best that you can. I would start looking at whether you have an interest in going into government, either on a career track or on a political track where, on the career track, there are a lot of opportunities for well qualified young lawyers, both in legal and in policy positions. And then on the political track, generally what you try to do is come in first as a senior advisor to someone, perhaps that you’ve practiced with or a client you’ve worked with. Get that initial political appointment and then begin work your way up, and then if you’re on that political side, you’ll be doing what I’ve done going back and forth between government and the private sector. You know, we’re one of the only countries in the world that allows someone to move as high end government as I have served without being an elected politician. We don’t have to do that here. So, we’ve got this great opportunity to move up, serve our country, whatever your passion is, national security, economic, environmental. You can do that again on the career or the political side, but you can also do interesting and hopefully valuable things for clients in the private sector.

    Felicia Ellsworth: Well, great advice for those in law school and beyond, and certainly some advice that maybe I’ll try and implement as I move forward in my career. Ambassador Kimmitt, I cannot thank you enough for spending some time with us and sharing such great stories about what is truly an amazing career. As I said, we could fill three or four podcast episodes with your career and all the cases you’ve handled, so we’ll just have to have you back to talk some more another time. But for now. Thank you so much for joining us.

    Ambassador Robert Kimmitt: Felicia, thanks for this opportunity and thanks to the audience for listening. It’s very flattering and I wish you all the very best in your own careers.

    Felicia Ellsworth: And thank you everyone listening for tuning in to this episode of In the Public Interest. We hope you’ll join us for our next episode. If you enjoyed this podcast, please take a minute to share with a friend and subscribe, rate, and review us wherever you listen to your podcasts. See you next time on In the Public Interest.

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